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Chapter Forty Four
It was a dark, gray morning when Toke stood above a rope ladder that led to a lifeboat in the shadow of the Seventh Swordfish. A thick fog rose from the lake, and the water didn't seem to lap against the ship's hull as much as it sloshed.
“Storm coming soon,” Treyn noted, hands on hips as he faced the thick curtain of clouds.
“Are we going to be okay in that little boat if we get caught in it?” Toke asked.
Treyn grinned cheerfully. “Almost certainly not.”
Toke sighed. “Figures. How long would you say we have before it gets here?”
“Eh, a day at the most. Maybe a little longer.”
“If you don't feel like goin', there ain't no shame in turnin' back!” a voice came from down below. Toke looked to see Ludsong already sitting in the boat, a wicked smile on his face.
“No shame,” he said back, “but no marriage, either.”
Before Ludsong could reply, Toke leaped from the ship, ignoring the ladder. He smirked when he heard Ludsong curse, but by the time he landed, he had already made himself so light that the boat barely rocked beneath his weight.
“Sinkin' idiot,” the first mate spat, glaring at him. “You tryin' to drown us?”
Toke grinned back at him. “If a little rough water scares you, there's no shame in calling this off.”
“Shut yer yap!” he growled, gripping the oars with white knuckles. “Is that Sorakine girl comin', or can we get goin'?”
Toke nodded, and sat down opposite the first mate. “Yeah, we can go.”
Ludsong raised an eyebrow. “You mean she ain't—”
“Oh, she's coming. She's just scouting ahead right now. She'll meet up with us later.”
“Scoutin' ahead? For what?”
Toke shrugged. “No idea, but I've been with her long enough to trust her instincts on things like this.”
To his surprise, Ludsong nodded, and the look in his eyes told Toke that the first mate actually agreed with him on this. “She's been through a lot, hasn't she?”
“More than any girl deserves to have to go through.”
“And she ain't the only one.” Ludsong fixed him with a fierce stare. “My little girl ain't never had a real childhood, what with them...” His voice trailed off, but the way his hand absentmindedly reached up to touch his face, right beside his eye, told Toke everything he needed to know.
“I understand,” Toke said, solemnly.
“No, boy, you don't know nothin'!” Ludsong snapped. “You come dancin' into Inaska's life, embarrassin' her, wantin' to marry her, but you don't know what she's been through. You don't know what life's like for her!”
Toke narrowed his eyes. “You think so, huh?”
“Boy, I know—”
“Wait! Wait just a second!”
Both of them froze and looked up just in time to see Inaska peek over the side of the ship at them, her mask glittering despite the lack of sunlight. Before either of them could react, she grabbed hold of the rope ladder and slid down it, nearly capsizing the boat when she landed.
“Inaska!” her father exclaimed once the rocking had stopped. “What do you think you're doing? Get back on the ship!”
“I'm not coming with you, Daddy,” she reassured him, balancing in the tipsy vessel as if she were on solid land. “I just wanted to say goodbye!”
She knelt down and gave him a hug, which the massive man returned with the gentle tenderness that only his daughter was able to bring out in him. Then she turned around to face Toke—and kissed him.
“Inaska!” Ludsong spluttered again.
Inaska ignored him. “Be careful, okay?” she whispered into Toke's ear, holding herself close to him. “No matter what happens, come back alive.”
Toke smiled. “You don't have to worry about me.”
“I'm serious, Toke! I don't care if you have to fail Daddy's stupid test...”
“Hey, I heard that!”
“...I want you here alive. Got it?”
Toke kissed her again. “Got it.”
She finally nodded her satisfaction, and deftly clambered back up the ladder. Toke watched her go, and wasn't surprised to find Ludsong's red faced glare waiting for him when he looked back down.
“Ready to go?” Toke asked cheerfully.
Ludsong growled, but began to row the boat away from the ship anyway. “The sooner Kuerlo turns you into fishbait, the better!”
Toke let that go without comment, and turned around in his seat to watch the Seventh Swordfish fade into the fog behind them. He took a deep breath, calming his nerves, and settled in for a long wait.
“So,” he said a few minutes later, “you actually know where Kuerlo is right now?”
Ludsong grunted, but didn't stop rowing. “Asked around last time we were in port. He’s been plunderin’ some small villages by the lakeside.”
“We should reach him before nightfall.”
Toke nodded, and they sat facing each other for a while with nothing but the splashing of the oars to fill the silence.
“Do you want me to take a turn?” Toke finally asked.
Ludsong shook his head. “I may want you to fail today, boy, but I'm still gonna make this fair. I ain't gonna make you fight Kuerlo exhausted after rowin' all day. Just sit there and try not to make me wanna kill you.”
Toke folded his arms, looking out over the waters. With no sun in the sky, the lake was dark... just like when he had stranded on that smiting island. He shivered. At the same time, though, it put things in perspective: he might be in this boat with one of the people who wanted him dead more than anyone else on Fissura, but that was still better than being here alone. One thing still bothered him, though...
“What do you know about me?” he asked a few minutes later.
Ludsong raised an eyebrow. “Hmm?”
“What do you know about my past? From before I joined the Seventh Swordfish?”
“I know you're on the run from the law up in Yasmik, so you hopped the border and joined the circus.” He snorted. “What else is there to know?”
“Do you know why I'm on the run from the law?”
“Couldn't care less.”
Toke folded his arms. “Well, seeing as how we're about to be related,” he smiled at the way that made Ludsong growl, “it only seems fair that you know the whole story.”
He leaned forward. “Everyone thinks I'm a terrorist.”
“Can't imagine why.”
“Only thing is,” Toke held up his hands, “I'm not! In fact, I'm the one who stopped the real terrorist. I was—”
He stopped talking when the sound of flapping wings filled the air. A second later, a dull yellow glow lit up the fog to their right.
“Over here!” Toke yelled.
Ludsong sat up rigid. “Are you tryin' to give away our position, boy?”
Toke rolled his eyes. “Give it away to who?”
Zashiel emerged from the fog, her wings making ripples in the water beneath her when she flapped. Performing some midair acrobatics, she managed to point her feet downward and land in the boat without rocking it too much.
“Anything?” Toke asked.
She shook her head. “Just water. What’d I miss?”
“He's just here tellin' fish stories,” Ludsongs grunted. “About how he's some kinda hero who stopped a terrorist or somethin'.”
Zashiel gave him a sharp look, her wings flashing with annoyance. “It's true. Navras built a machine that was going to knock Hashira—my home—out of the sky. Toke stopped him. Nearly got killed himself killed in the process.”
Toke usually blushed whenever Zashiel bragged about what he'd done, but this time he pushed aside his embarrassment and sat up straighter, looking Ludsong right in the eye.
Ludsong chuckled, but Toke thought he could detect a hint of unease in his voice. “You don't say? And they named him a terrorist and drove him outta his own country, huh? Is that how Yasmik treats its heroes?”
“They think I was the one who tried to destroy her city,” Toke answered.
“And how do I know you ain't?”
“Do you really think that?”
Ludsong paused, running his eyes up and down him, and then spat into the lake. “Nah. I told you, you're too soft to kill even one person. Killin' an entire city? Don't make me laugh.”
“He's a hero,” Zashiel insisted, her cheeks beginning to turn red. “Even more so since he did it knowing what everyone would say about him.”
Ludsong huffed. “If you say so, girl.”
Zashiel leaned forward, balling her fist, but Toke stopped her by putting a hand on her shoulder. “Zashiel, it's fine. I have a whole country full of people who think I'm some demented mass murderer. What's one more?”
Zashiel looked at him, and then slowly let out the breath she'd been holding. Silence fell over them again, but when Toke caught Ludsong looking at him again a few minutes later, there was something different in his eyes. Not respect—Toke doubted Ludsong would ever respect him—but something close to it.
“So,” Toke said, “I told you my story. Now it's your turn.”
Ludsong's expression darkened again, but this time Toke didn't back down. If he tried anything... well, Zashiel was sitting in between them now.
“What's that supposed to mean?” the large man asked.
“It means that Inaska told me about herself, and how she's the Calix Cura.” Ludsong's eyes widened with rage, but Toke waved dismissively before he could say anything. “You knew I knew about her, so don't go acting all outraged. But tell me, where do you come into things?”
“I'm her sinkin' father, boy!” he bellowed. “Where do you think I came into things?”
Toke leaned forward, trying to keep his voice calm. “Because if you are, then you have a lot to answer for.”
Ludsong froze. “What do you—”
“Inaska didn't train herself to be Vlangur's most feared assassin,” Toke interrupted him. “And she didn't decide to kill your country's king by herself. That means that if you're her father...” He let his voice trail off, letting Ludsong know exactly what he was thinking.
Ludsong growled again, gripping the oars so tightly he nearly split them in two, and for a second Toke thought that he was going to jump from his seat and attack him. Zashiel apparently had the same thought, because she not-so-discreetly reached for one of her chakrams. Ludsong eyed them both, face red and veins purple, before looking down and deflating like a punctured balloon.
“All right, all right,” he said softly. “I admit it. I ain't... I ain't the girl's real father.”
“She seems to think you are,” Toke noted. “Does she know?”
“Of course she know, ya aftdragger! She ain't stupid. Besides,” he gave Toke a dirty look, “I would'a thought you of all people would know that family ain't always about blood.”
“How did you meet her, then?” Zashiel asked.
“Whoever trained her and sent her on her mission...” Ludsong raised his hand, nearly losing the oar, “No, I don't know who it was, so don't ask! Anyway, they put her on our ship because it was headed for Stal Atrieda. She got to be one of our acrobats. Best one we ever saw, even when she was that young.” He paused, and a proud smile appeared on his face. Then he remembered who he was with, and went back to scowling. “I got to talkin' to her, and found out she was an orphan. Or, at least she said she was, but whatever. I... I'm an orphan myself, so I... y'know, felt bad for her. And she was a good kid an' all, so...”
“So you adopted her?” Toke finished for him.
Ludsong snorted. “Not right away. When we got to Stal Atrieda, she vanished on us. I figured she'd gone and found another job, but then... then everyone started talkin' about the sinkin' Calix Cura. A little girl who killed the king and half the people in the castle!” He sighed. “I knew it was her right away. I knew I should’ve been horrified by what she did, hate her like all the rest, but I couldn't. She was always the sweetest little girl you ever met. Assassin or not, I... I knew I had to save her.”
“So you brought her back on the ship and spirited her away,” Zashiel said.
“Aye.” Ludsong nodded wearily, as if just telling that story had exhausted him. “Adopting her wasn't even my decision. She just, one day, asked if she could call me 'Daddy’, and...” His voice cracked, and Toke was startled to see a tear run down his cheek. “It wasn't legal or nothin', but that don't matter! I'm her daddy, and she's my little girl, and I don't like the thought of her marryin' some foreign terrorist!”
Zashiel began to rise from her seat. “Toke is not—”
“Zashiel, it's okay.” The Sorakine glared at him, but sat back down anyway. Toke looked at Ludsong. “You're a good man. Ugly and probably the biggest grouch I've ever met, but a good man.”
Ludsong actually chuckled at that. “What? You think I'm gonna compliment you back now? You're still nothin' but a disrespectful punk who's tryin' to steal my daughter away.”
Toke shrugged. “You're not the one I'm planning on marrying, so you can feel however you want about me so long as you keep your side of the bargain.”
“I ain't the one you have to worry about breakin' the deal, boy.”
“Speaking of which,” Zashiel butted in, and turned to Toke, “are you sure you want to do this?”
“Do I have a choice?” Toke asked.
“Between killing someone and not killing them?” Zashiel nodded solemnly. “That's one of the few choices in life that can never be taken from you.”
“If you want to back out—”
“I'm not backing out!” Toke punched the side of the boat, and winced when his injured wrist flared up. “Zashiel, you know who it is we're going after. Are you really going to tell me that killing him wouldn't be doing all of Vlangur a huge favor?”
“Of course I'm not saying that,” she shot back. “All I'm saying is, are you sure you're the right person to do it?”
Toke rubbed his wrist and sighed. “No. But nobody else has done it, so that's as good a reason as any for me to do it.”
Zashiel still didn't seem satisfied, but she let the matter drop. Toke was grateful. Pirate or not, indiscriminate murderer or not, the thought of hunting down Kuerlo and killing him in cold blood made him sick. Had the pirate captain come back and attacked the Swordfish, Toke might have felt different, but this... this just felt wrong. If Zashiel had pushed him a little harder, she may very well have convinced him to turn around and give up. He couldn't let that happen, though, not when his relationship with Inaska was at stake.
She was worth one dead pirate... wasn't she?
“Let's talk about our plan of action when we get there,” he said, more to distract himself than anything else. “Zashiel, I want you to—”
“If she interferes, the deal is off!” Ludsong snapped.
Toke rolled his eyes. “Thanks for reminding us. So Zashiel, it'll be your job to keep the rest of the crew off me while I'm fighting Kuerlo.”
“She's not going to touch the captain!” Toke cut him off. “That was our deal: I have to kill Kuerlo. You never said she couldn't take care of the rest of the crew.”
Ludsong blinked, thinking back to their conversation, and when he couldn't think of any more protests he sat back, grumbling.
“And,” Toke said in a lower voice, “keep an eye out for Shen. Remember: he has a piece of Navras' armor, so don't underestimate him.”
Zashiel nodded, her expression grave.
“Don't kill him, though,” he quickly added. “We need to find out what he knows first.”
The Sorakine girl stood up, scanning the foggy landscape ahead of them.
“I'll leave him alive,” she said a minute later, “but I don't see what you think you can learn from him. We already know you're—”
She stopped, blinked in confusion, and then narrowed her eyes. Though she kept her mouth shut—for which Toke was grateful—her expression told him exactly what she was thinking: You still haven't told her?
“I need to talk to him,” Toke said slowly, trying to figure out how much he could say without making Ludsong suspicious, “because he's the one making it happen. Even if I know what... it's doing... I want to know how he made it happen, and, more importantly, why.”
“I already said I'd leave him alive,” she said, facing forward and looking out across the gray waters again. “You don't have to convince me.”
“You're talkin' about that old man who was with Kuerlo, ain't you?” Ludsong spoke up. “Do you know him?”
“Not nearly as much as I want to,” Toke said, clenching his fist.
“What's he to you?”
Ludsong growled. “If he's pallin' around with Blackbane Kuerlo, then he ain't nothin'.”
Toke didn't reply, looking away from Ludsong. With one hand, he drummed his fingers on the side of the boat, and with the other he let his fingers trail through the water. Below the surface, he could make out a few fish darting around, wondering if his fingers were some tasty treat they could snatch up. None of them deemed the risk worthwhile, though, and trailed off only to be replaced by other fish. Ones with orange scales, bright even in the dull sunlight, purple ones, and even ones—Toke was alarmed to see—that had teeth the size of his fingers! He quickly yanked his hand out of the water.
Ludsong muttered under his breath. “Just tell me this, then: is he gonna put Inaska in danger?”
“No,” Toke answered without hesitation. “What's going on between us is personal. Inaska doesn't factor into it at all.”
The first mate nodded, apparently satisfied, and for a long time the only sound was his oars pushing the boat across the lake inch by inch, mile by mile. Toke had to be impressed. They'd been out here for at least four hours by now, and Ludsong hadn't slowed the slightest bit. He wasn't even breathing hard. Grudgingly, Toke had to respect him for that. For all his grouchiness, Ludsong was a man who could back up what he said with his sheer muscle. He was genuine too, in the same blunt way that Zashiel was.
Is this how Mom and Dad feel around Zashiel all the time? he wondered idly. Maybe he should tell her to ease up on them a little. He put that from his mind, though. There were more important things to think about at the moment. If he didn't come through on his end of Ludsong's deal, then...
A thought occurred to him.
“Hey,” he said, sitting up, “my part of our deal was for me to kill Kuerlo, right?”
“Obviously,” Ludsong grunted.
“Well, what was Inaska's part of it?”
Ludsong frowned. “I dunno. Inaska... she said your parents were having a hard time decidin' what they wanted her to do. Said she spoke to your father personally, and afterwards he was satisfied.”
“She spoke to my dad?” Toke put his hand to his chin. “The only thing I can think of that would satisfy him would be... she doesn't have anything she can sell, does she?”
Ludsong shrugged. “Who knows with that girl?”
“She's your daughter.”
“Aye, and I still don't know what she's thinkin' half the time! You'll have to ask her when you get back.” He smirked. “Assumin' you do make it back. And assumin' there's still a weddin' when you do.”
Toke opened his mouth, but Zashiel was already talking. “He's coming back. One way or another, I'm not letting him die on that ship.”
Ludsong shrugged again. “Don't much matter to me. I know he ain't gonna kill Kuerlo, so whatever happens after that ain't my problem.”
With a sigh, Toke shook his head. “You're in for a surprise, Ludsong.”
To Toke's surprise, Ludsong pulled both oars into the boat with a laugh.
“You think so, huh?” he said, standing up. “Well, here's your chance to prove it!”
Toke immediately tensed up as the massive first mate towered in front of him, his hand darting behind his back to draw one of his axes, but then Ludsong spun around to face the other way. Amazingly, he rocked the boat even less than Toke and Zashiel had. He put his hands proudly on his hips, looking out into the fog at something Toke couldn't see.
“What are you...” he began, but then stopped.
In front of them, a massive black shadow materialized in the mist. His blood turned to ice inside his veins. Even in the dim light, he could make out the shape of Kuerlo's ship, the elegant curves of its hull and the billowing sails that hung from the rigging like clouds taken prisoner.
Ludsong turned and gave him a smug look. “We're here.”
NEXT TIME: Somebody put some action music on, because we’re about to have us a fight scene! Will Toke be able to beat Kuerlo? And even if he does…will he be able to finish the job? Be here next Saturday to find out!